Mountaintops have long been seen as sacred places, home to gods and dreams. In one climbing year Peter Boardman visited three very different sacred mountains. He began on the South Face of the Carstensz Pyramid in New Guinea. This is the highest point between the Andes and the Himalaya, and one of the most inaccessible, rising above thick jungle inhabited by warring Stone Age tribes.
During the spring Boardman made a four-man, oxygen-free attempt on the world’s third highest peak, Kangchenjunga. Hurricane-force winds beat back their first two bids on the unclimbed North Ridge, but they eventually stood within feet of the summit – leaving the final few yards untrodden in deference to the inhabiting deity. In October, he climbed the mountain most sacred to the Sherpas: the twin-summited Gauri Sankar. Renowned for its technical difficulty and spectacular profile, it is aptly dubbed the Eiger of the Himalaya and Boardman’s first ascent took a gruelling twenty-three days.
From start to finish I found Peter Boardman’s account of these three challenging climbing expeditions, all undertaken during 1979, both riveting and awe-inspiring. I think that for most climbers, tackling just one of these summits in a year would be enough, but the fact that he tackled all three speaks of both his passion for the mountains and his determination to push himself to his limits and to become the best climber he possibly could be, whatever that took. I really enjoyed his well-written, often humorous accounts of the various technical, personal and ethical challenges he and his fellow climbers faced on each expedition and the powerful, but sometimes transitory, nature of the relationships which are forged. I also appreciated his highly evocative descriptions, at times so vid that they enabled me to share some of the adrenaline-fuelled excitement and danger he and his fellow climbers experienced … albeit from the safety of my comfortable armchair!
However, what I most enjoyed were the non-technical, more philosophical aspects of his memoir. These included honest and insightful reflections on the stress and anxiety a climber’s ‘selfish’, risk-taking indulgence places on family members and friends, the fluctuating nature of interactions with fellow climbers during any expedition and how, bearing in mind their need to maintain trust in one another, any conflicts which arise need to be quickly resolved. The fact that he included the sometimes differing opinions of other members of the expeditions added an important extra dimension to his accounts of the climbs, to the ethical dilemmas they frequently faced and how they resolved them. I appreciated his thoughtful and sensitive reflections on needing to be respectful of local people, their culture and traditions and whether, in fact, climbers should even attempt to ‘conquer’ mountains which are sacred to the indigenous population.
What made reading this book a particularly poignant experience was the knowledge that Peter Boardman had fewer than three years left to live and to continue climbing because, during an attempt to conquer Everest’s North East Ridge he died in May 1982. This fascinating memoir was published later that year, a fitting testament to a talented climber whose passion led to his untimely death.
Reviewed by Linda Hepworth
Published by Vertebrate Publishing; New edition, 2021 (4 Mar. 2021)
Paperback, ISBN 978-1839810602